As a devotee of fine art, literature, antiques and a student of man’s early history, I am fascinated by the growth and complexity of human development. The Indus Valley and the Mesopotamian civilisations developed the first laid out city settlements. Other Asian and Middle Eastern cultures and dynasties influenced us in their evolving models of agriculture, beliefs, languages, numbers, writing and scientific ideas, which were developed and established well before Europe advanced into civilised society. Throughout all these periods man walked with a cane, as a status symbol, protection and support. Therefore, I want to set the social and historic setting to our world by intertwining history and social change with the story and development of the walking stick and umbrella.
In British schools, we are generally taught history from a British and European point of view. In studying an account of the world, the teachers often leave whole civilisations and continents, including Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas, a mystery. Only when these civilisations or peoples came under the influence of Europeans do we learn of their existence.
Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer and navigator, sailed across the Atlantic from Spain in the Santa Maria in 1492, with the Pinta and the Niña ships alongside, hoping to find a new route to India. Columbus discovered America when he thought he had reached India and even possibly Japan. It was Vasco da Gama, first Count of Vidigueira, was the Portuguese explorer who was the first European to reach India by sea. However, for most, Japan and the wider Far East barely rates a mention until the 17th century. By then Europe had become the heart of the globe, and the world’s engine. By then the staff, stick or walking cane was ever present as an everyday essential item, used for support, or a symbol of status. However, there are examples of canes and swords being used as props by harem, combat and street dancers in both ancient Egypt and the Islamic world.
From Egyptian dancers, using curved canes with rattled at the end to the Morris dancers in England, known for the ‘attack’ tap, more playful than pugnacious, it is this play fighting with canes that reminds many of fencing – itself thought of as a kind of dance.
There are many such examples, which give contention that the walking cane, in its various forms, was a witness through time, not as a mere appendage to status and fashion but to real social and historical events. The walking cane in its development is a physical representation of man’s move from feudal rank, through fashion, into the age of science and enlightenment.
As Wayne Curtis puts it, ‘The Victorian walking stick was the Swiss Army Knife of the pre-automotive era: something useful, easily carried, and able to provoke small wonderment when shown off, and useful as weaponry in certain circumstances.’